It is quite remarkable that Rebecca, the internationally-acclaimed musical that premiered in Vienna 17 years ago, is only receiving its UK debut in 2023. Set on a Cornish estate, the story - based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel - really is quintessentially English.
In Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay’s stage adaptation, translated into English here by Christopher Hampton, the wealthy Maxim de Winter (played by Richard Carson) brings his timid new wife (Lauren Jones) home to his mansion in Cornwall, where she is met with resentment from Mrs Danvers (Kara Lane), a Machiavellian housekeeper and confidante to the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, recently deceased in a mysterious drowning accident.
Rebecca, making its English-language debut at the Charing Cross Theatre, really is a show of two halves. While its second act is fast-paced and action-packed, act one is pedestrian and clunky. We are introduced to Maxim - a stiff, wooden man who doesn’t make jokes before breakfast - in a Monte Carlo hotel, where he meets and bafflingly quickly proposes to a naive young woman, referred to throughout the piece only as ‘I’.
The storytelling is awkward and, honestly, very little of interest happens in act one. Unfortunately, the dreary pace affords Rebecca’s audience time to contemplate what is an extremely basic set design. For an estate spoken about with such reverence and grandeur, Nicky Shaw’s set design appears to resemble a rundown 1970s bed and breakfast. The set reconfigurations become tiresome and often the audience is left watching the performers standing in front of a white curtain, singing over the crashing and banging behind.
Christopher Hampton’s English translation is fine. There are a few lyrics that jar with their simplicity (“I broke it and put the pieces in a drawer”) by describing what can already be seen (“This is her bed, this is her gown”) but, in general, Rebecca’s adaptation to its spiritual tongue works. However, it takes the ensemble numbers ‘The Brand New Mrs de Winter’ and ‘What a Night’ to inject life and energy into a flagging first act.
This production boasts an 18-piece orchestra and perhaps that is where the budget was spent, at the expense of a higher quality set. It does sound lush, especially within the confines of a relatively small off-West End playhouse - but not being physically close to the performers it is playing for does make it feel somewhat underpowered compared to other similarly sized orchestras. But it is a nice touch, nonetheless.
Act one ends with a dramatic moment on, what is in previous productions, the iconic staircase. Without drawing comparisons with other versions or indeed the original novel, the staging here feels very rushed. When I unknowingly evokes memories of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, this should be significantly more dramatic and lingered upon. Instead, the moment passes quickly before we are treated to one of Lane’s increasingly terrifying renditions of title number ‘Rebecca’.
However, the show comes alive throughout its second act. The plot is vivid, more urgent, as the previously one-dimensional characters are peeled back to reveal their insecure and unraveling lives spiraling out of control. Jones demonstrates acting talents to match her exceptional vocal abilities as I grows in confidence and becomes a dominant figure at Manderley.
The growing dynamic between Jones and Lane captivates and peaks during ‘Mrs de Winter is Me’, as I asserts power over the increasingly fraught Mrs Danvers. Jones, who previously stole any show when she was in as the alternate Bonnie in Bonnie & Clyde, does not disappoint and will surely benefit from this platform for her talents. Lane, meanwhile, is suitably dark and disturbing as Mrs Danvers, with her battlecry of ‘Rebecca’ haunting throughout.
Maxim is the least developed of the trio of main characters but Carson does his best to bring emotion and genuine despair to the role during ‘I’ll Never Forget Her Smile’. Ultimately, Maxim was never written to be charismatic or personable, even as he opens up later in the piece. A special mention ought to go to Alex James-Ward, who is deliciously camp as Rebecca’s former cousin and lover Jack Fervell, culminating in the witty ‘If You Scratch My Back’.
As the circumstances of Rebecca’s death are called into question, the show takes on the feel of an Agatha Christie novel at times. But the original German-language production is perhaps best known for (spoiler alert) the flaming staircase at the end - come on, the show’s logo is literally burning fire. This cannot be replicated on anything like the scale seen in Vienna but it worked fairly well and was convincing, bringing the scene close to the audience.
This first English-language production of Rebecca is undoubtedly ground-breaking. The show had undergone so many false starts in London and New York previously, so to finally see it is a relief, if not a treat. However, this beautifully dramatic score is deserving of a grander stage in keeping with previous productions. It has the makings of a great gothic musical but there is still some way to go - the English translations are functional but could be tightened up, while the set is in need of an overhaul for a show of this magnitude.
Fans of the novel will surely enjoy this musical adaptation of Rebecca. Lauren Jones is a star, while Kara Lane and Richard Carson keep the piece moving when the book lags behind. But hopefully this is just the beginning of Rebecca’s life in London.
Rebecca plays at the Charing Cross Theatre until 18 November. Tickets: here.
Review: Tom Ambrose Photo: Mark Senior